One of the most well-known Roman defeats occurred in Teutoberg Forest in 9 C.E. It was in those Germanian woods that the Roman ‘general’ Quintilius Varus and his forces were annihilated by the Cheruscans under the leadership of Arminius. After other successful ventures in Germania, Emperor Augustus had started to “push for full provincial development of the wild German interior” (Bunson, 2002, p. 529). To aid in the Romanization of the Germans, the great administrator Varus was made governor of the region, but while he may have been a great diplomat, Varus was far from what one would call a military leader.
Soon after Varus arrived, revolts began, being led by the Cheruscan prince Arminius, who was actually a former auxiliary of the Roman army (Bunson, 2002, p. 40). Interestingly, another Germanic tribe leader, Segestes, was loyal to Rome and tried to get Varus to see Arminius’ treachery. He even suggested that Varus put all the Germanic leaders, including himself, “in bonds,” because without leaders the people wouldn’t revolt anymore, and in this situation Varus would be more able to determine who his true allies were (Tacitus, 2004 Trans., p. 29). But the inexperienced Varus would not heed his advice, instead “[falling] to fate and Arminius’ violence” (Tacitus, 2004 Trans., p. 29).
Varus, tricked by his German advisers, left camp with the three legions under his command, and marched them through the rugged and nigh impenetrable terrain of Teutoberg Forest. Slowed down by their baggage train and unable to move forward, nearly 20,000 Romans were slaughtered in a Cherusci ambush (Bunson, 2002, p. 529). The Germans at this time, as the image below shows, weren’t exactly heavily armored (Koch (Wikipedia), 1909). The Romans clearly had the advantage in equipment and discipline, but because the German army vastly outnumbered them, was “powerfully helped by the terrain,” and the Romans were being led by the militarily incompetent Quintilius Varus, they were doomed to destruction (Thompson, 1958, p. 12).
As the Germans started cutting the Romans down, Varus was wounded. However, Varus “met his death by a blow from his own luckless right hand,” that is, he killed himself because of his great fear, and while the remaining officers and soldiers fought on bravely, they were eventually defeated (Tacitus, 2004 Trans., p. 32). The few that did survive the onslaught were burned alive in wicker cages. This brutal response to Roman expansion sent a strong message to Rome- that the Germanic tribes would not remain subject to oppressive outside forces.
As a result of the defeat, Varus and his entire force were disgraced. The loss of the legions was a huge blow to the development efforts of Augustus, hindering the flow of Roman influence in this region, and he was deeply affected by the event. While his stepson Tiberius “moved swiftly to the Rhine frontier to prevent any German invasion of Gaul,” he began a period of mourning (Scarre, 2000, p. 24). He stopped cutting his hair and his beard, and was also said to have cried “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!” (Scarre, 2000, p. 24). The remains of Varus and his men remained unburied until six years later when the Roman general Germanicus brought his own forces in to avenge Rome’s loss at Teutoberg Forest and suppress the Germanic tribes, but the crushing loss couldn’t have been forgotten.
Bunson, M. (2002). Arminius; Teutoberg Forest. In Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire (p. 40; p. 529). New York, NY: Facts on File, Inc.
Koch, O. (Artist). (1909). Otto Albert Koch Varusschlacht 1909 [Web Photo]. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Otto_Albert_Koch_Varusschlacht_1909.jpg
Scarre, C. (2000). Chronicle of the Roman Emperors: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers of Imperial Rome. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson.
Tacitus. (2004). The Annals (A. J. Woodman, Trans.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Thompson, E. A. (1958). Early Germanic Warfare. Past & Present, 14, 2-29. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/650090